CAMPAIGN: The Celestia Project
By Matthew Power, editor-in-chief, Green Builder
The future lies in our cities. Not the future for the poor, or the rich, the Chinese or the Brazilians or Japanese—the future for all of us. The more relentless upward curve of population growth, the clearer it becomes that moving in-—densification, the opposite of what we’ve done for the last 50 years—is the best option left, and the one that might save us from ourselves.
Cities don’t ask you to change how you see the world. To live in a city, you don’t have to become a nature lover or activist, cut your consumption of plastic junk from Wal-Mart, create less waste, have fewer children, or eat less meat. But chances are, the cities themselves will transform you.
That’s because the greenest places to live in the world are extremely dense cities, such as Vancouver and New York City. As author David Owen (Green Metropolis) points out, however, it’s not that the people living there are inherently greener—it’s because density is its own reward. When you live in stacked apartments, each unit below heats part of the unit above. When your space is smaller, you collect less furniture and “stuff” to fill the void. And perhaps most importantly, when you’re close to stores, schools, restaurants and hair salons, you tend to drive less and walk more. Put simply, you use less of everything.
Our views about eco-friendly development patterns (my own included) have become outdated and now appear completely upside down. In advocating single-family housing—in the ‘burbs or rural countryside—albeit net-zero or better, we may be handing out fluorescent light bulbs on the deck of the Titanic.
With the population headed for more than 9 billion by 2050, the stress on biodiversity, climate change and resource shifts will make such lifestyle choices increasingly difficult to rationalize.
Yet in the U.S. especially, where resource use per person dwarfs that of most of the rest of the world, urging people to reduce consumption is heresy. The party continues, despite ever more dire warnings about climate change, drought, the percolating dangers of global inequality and so on.
Here’s where cities come in. They offer a choice that is by design more sustainable than the suburban narrative of the 1950s that still dominates U.S. policy and planning. People in cities consume less, because of where and how they live, not because they occupy the moral high ground.
Researchers have put some figures on the consumption impact of urban living. The starting point is usually density. Owen notes that residents of New York, living at a density of 26,403 people per square mile, have rates of C02 emission (per capita) that are 71 percent lower than the national average. But current zoning laws in most of the U.S. actually preclude the kind of mixed-use zoning found in New York. This is a problem. Without such high-density “congregation,” population growth will be increasingly burdensome. If the residents of New York City spread out the way people in Vermont do, Owen notes, every acre of land in the northern six states would be part of a gigantic suburb.
To accelerate the in-migration to cities, we first must make them incredible places to live for all ages, all income levels, all cultural backgrounds. That’s not as daunting a task as it sounds. We have decades of research about what works, and what doesn’t. ...
Editors: The Celestia Project is a year-long campaign that will address many of the biggest environmental and social challenges of our time. Check out all the chapters here. Our beautiful high-resolution illustrations are available for your use, with attribution to www.greenbuildermedia.com/celestiaproject. Also see photos embedded in this release with links to high-res images for your use. All editorial features and a media kit/editorial calendar for this project can be found here. More info: Matt Power, email: Matt.email@example.com